I had a good chat with Angie and Megan today. Both gals are excellent youth ministers here in the Des Moines area. We get together once a week to talk about specific aspects of ministry. It’s a little experiment we stole from a local school district called a Professional Learning Community. Basically it’s a peer-led mini continuing education experience. The discussions are enriching; and they are most beneficial when we disagree. Such was the case today.
The topic was Confirmation Ministry, something that exists in almost every Lutheran church. The “end result” of CM is for teens (usually in 8th or 9th grade) to make public proclamation of their faith in the Triune God, usually by reciting the Apostle’s Creed. During the Affirmation of Baptism service, young people (along with the support of parents, baptismal sponsors, and the entire congregation) also make the following promises:
- To live among God’s faithful people
- To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
- To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
- To serve all people, following the example of Jesus
- To strive for justice and peace in all the earth
Considering the daunting nature of these promises, most Lutheran churches provide an extensive educational curriculum that helps young people grow in knowledge and faith in the years leading up to the Affirmation. Common aspects of CM curriculum include weekly class time taught by a pastor or lay leader, service projects, taking notes in worship, writing faith statements, and the memorization of scripture and/or sections of Luther’s Small Catechism. Some churches will write their own curriculum. However, because most congregations have such similar approaches to CM, many Lutheran churches will purchase materials from Faith Inkubators or Here We Stand and tweak the resources to fit to their particular environment.
The educational theory is good. The pedagogy is solid. The practice, in many ways, is also helpful. (Full disclosure – I wrote a bunch of the material for Here We Stand.) But, somewhere along the way, we managed to screw it up.
Which takes us back to my conversation with Angie and Megan…
One of the big struggles for people like us, who really care about helping young people grow in faith, is the “rite of passage” nature that CM has taken in most Lutheran churches. Instead of being something that kids and parents choose to do, it’s something they do “because everyone else is doing it”; regardless of whether or not they have a desire to make public profession of their faith and assumer greater responsibility in the Christian life of faith. The current format of CM assumes that all kids start at the same place on their faith journey…and, even worse, that all kids arrive at the same “I BELIEVE” moment at the same time.
This all seems a bit disingenuous to me.
Every year there are hundreds of young people who had no desire to go through the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism at the end of Confirmation instruction. Typically, they were allowed (forced?) to go through it for one of two reasons:
- “You’ve done all the work, you might as well reap the benefits”
- Family members have already planned to attend, and will be disappointed if you don’t “get confirmed”
Neither one of these have anything to do with the 5 promises listed above, let alone a public pronouncement of faith…and yet churches all over the world continue to enable this mindset by not calling the motives into question. Some would argue, as someone did today, that we need to practice grace and demonstrate that we as a church are accepting of all people, regardless of their failures or shortcomings. All people should be welcomed into the Body of Christ. It doesn’t matter if they attended class regularly, completed their worship notes, or even believe in God.
To this I say “bullcrap”.
Grace applies to salvation, and is something that should be practiced in our encounters with all people. It also doesn’t apply in a situation where the church is supporting people who make the choice to affirm their Baptism. Grace is showing compassion on a child who didn’t memorize Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article of the Creed. It’s not allowing a disinterested, uncommitted young person to make a mockery of Confirmation Ministry and then show up on Affirmation Sunday because Granny wants to see the kid in a white robe.
Confirmation is the closest thing we Lutherans come to making a “decision for Jesus” or choosing to “accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior”. The Affirmation of Baptism is a joyous celebration in which someone take the promises that were made on their behalf when they were a baby and claims them as their own. It’s serious business…something the church shouldn’t take lightly. Allowing any and all 9th graders in the church to go through the entire process, regardless of authenticity, invalidates the efforts of those who are taking it seriously.
Taking this approach to the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism also strengthens the argument that Lutherans are a wishy-washy denomination – one that is willing to take anyone and everyone who shows interest and refuse to bog them down with making real commitments. This is moment where our faithful devotion to the grace of God is cheapened and reduced to nothing more than empty words on a page. What are we teaching our young people about being members of the Body of Christ? “We know that you have no desire to be here and that you don’t intend to fulfill the promises you’re making. We’re happy to be partners with you in this deception, in the hopes that you’ll come back some day.”
Here’s the truth — they’re not coming back…either because they were never interested in the first place and then never will be or, even worse, they realize one day that they want to start attending church, but they don’t return to their “home church” because they don’t want to be affiliated with such a dishonest organization.
That’s my biggest fear. Every day I see young people craving purpose and meaning in their communities. They want to be part of something that matters. They desire accountability and real connectivity. They want to be challenged to grow in faith, to realize their gifts and discover how to use them to the glory of God. They understand, better than their parents, that church isn’t all things to all people. They want to know that the church stands for something; even if that means they don’t get to wear the white robe.
I believe there is room in our grace-orientation for all of these things. We just need to have the courage to stand firm in who we are as a community of faith and, most importantly, walk with the young people and families who are not interested in Confirmation and bring them into the conversation. I do not advocate abandoning those who don’t want to do Confirmation. If anything, these households require even more of the church’s effort and energy.
I also think churches should remove any affiliation with age-specific Affirmations of Baptism. Furthermore, people should be able to affirm their Baptism whenever they feel it’s necessary. The Christian life is filled with moments of doubt and moments of faith; times of “I Believe” and times of “I Don’t”. We need to remove the notion that the one and only acceptable time to proclaim your faith is around the time you get your driver’s license.
I’m cooking up a proposal that incorporates some of those ideas. It wouldn’t work at my church, but might work for someone else out there. It’s something that utilizes the Here We Stand stuff, but could be used without it. Look for it by the end of the month.
In closing, Confirmation is a topic that has been very close to my heart ever since I was 14. Perhaps at another time in this space, I will share my Confirmation Ministry experience, and how it continues to shape me as a child of God and as a youth minister. I really appreciated the insights and perspective that Angie and Megan offered today. In the meantime, I welcome your comments and questions on anything I’ve written. Let’s keep the Confirmation Conversation going!!!